As attested by Sigismund von Herberstein, in the 16th century Russians called the range by a variety of names derived from the Russian words for rock (stone) and belt. The modern Russian name for the Urals (Урал, Ural), first appearing in the 16th–17th century when the Russian conquest of Siberia was in its heroic phase, was initially applied to its southern parts and gained currency as the name of the entire range during the 18th century. It might have been a borrowing from either Turkic "stone belt" (Bashkir, where the same name is used for the range), or Ob-Ugric. From the 13th century, in Bashkortostan there has been a legend about a hero named Ural. He sacrificed his life for the sake of his people and they poured a stone pile over his grave, which later turned into the Ural Mountains. Possibilities include Bashkir үр "elevation; upland"" or Mansi ур ала "mountain peak, top of the mountain", Ostyak urr (chain of mountains). V.N. Tatischev believes that this oronym is set to "belt" and associates it with the Turkic verb oralu- "gird". I.G. Dobrodomov suggests a transition from Aral to Ural explained on the basis of ancient Bulgar-Chuvash dialects. Geographer E.V. Hawks believes that the name goes back to the Bashkir folklore Ural-Batyr. Ethnographer E.N. Shumilov suggested a Mongolian origin, Khural Uul, that is, "meeting of the mountains". The Evenk geographical term era "mountain" has also been theorized. Finno-Ugrist scholars consider Ural deriving from the Mansi word 'urr' meaning a mountain. Turkologists, on the other hand, have achieved majority support for their assertion that 'ural' in Tatar means a belt, and recall that an earlier name for the range was 'stone belt'.
As Middle-Eastern merchants traded with the Bashkirs and other people living on the western slopes of the Ural as far north as Great Perm, since at least the 10th century medieval mideastern geographers had been aware of the existence of the mountain range in its entirety, stretching as far as to the Arctic Ocean in the north. The first Russian mention of the mountains to the east of the East European Plain is provided by the Primary Chronicle, when it describes the Novgorodian expedition to the upper reaches of the Pechora in 1096. During the next few centuries Novgorodians engaged in fur trading with the local population and collected tribute from Yugra and Great Perm, slowly expanding southwards. The rivers Chusovaya and Belaya were first mentioned in the chronicles of 1396 and 1468, respectively. In 1430 the town of Solikamsk (Kama Salt) was founded on the Kama at the foothills of the Ural, where salt was produced in open pans. Ivan III of Moscow captured Perm, Pechora and Yugra from the declining Novgorod Republic in 1472. With the excursions of 1483 and 1499–1500 across the Ural Moscow managed to subjugate Yugra completely.
Nevertheless, around that time early 16th century Polish geographer Maciej of Miechów in his influential Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis (1517) argued that there were no mountains in Eastern Europe at all, challenging the point of view of some authors of Classical antiquity, popular during the Renaissance. Only after Sigismund von Herberstein in his Notes on Muscovite Affairs (1549) had reported, following Russian sources, that there are mountains behind the Pechora and identified them with the Ripheans and Hyperboreans of ancient authors, did the existence of the Ural, or at least of its northern part, become firmly established in the Western geography. The Middle and Southern Ural were still largely unavailable and unknown to the Russian or Western European geographers.
In the 1550s, after the Tsardom of Russia had defeated the Khanate of Kazan and proceeded to gradually annex the lands of the Bashkirs, the Russians finally reached the southern part of the mountain chain. In 1574 they founded Ufa. The upper reaches of the Kama and Chusovaya in the Middle Ural, still unexplored, as well as parts of Transuralia still held by the hostile Siberian Khanate, were granted to the Stroganovs by several decrees of the tsar in 1558–1574. The Stroganovs' land provided the staging ground for Yermak's incursion into Siberia. Yermak crossed the Ural from the Chusovaya to the Tagil around 1581. In 1597 Babinov's road was built across the Ural from Solikamsk to the valley of the Tura, where the town of Verkhoturye (Upper Tura) was founded in 1598. Customs was established in Verkhoturye shortly thereafter and the road was made the only legal connection between European Russia and Siberia for a long time. In 1648 the town of Kungur was founded at the western foothills of the Middle Ural. During the 17th century the first deposits of iron and copper ores, mica, gemstones and other minerals were discovered in the Ural.
Iron and copper smelting works emerged. They multiplied particularly quickly during the reign of Peter I of Russia. In 1720–1722 he commissioned Vasily Tatishchev to oversee and develop the mining and smelting works in the Ural. Tatishchev proposed a new copper smelting factory in Yegoshikha, which would eventually become the core of the city of Perm and a new iron smelting factory on the Iset, which would become the largest in the world at the time of construction and give birth to the city of Yekaterinburg. Both factories were actually founded by Tatishchev's successor, Georg Wilhelm de Gennin, in 1723. Tatishchev returned to the Ural on the order of Empress Anna to succeed de Gennin in 1734–1737. Transportation of the output of the smelting works to the markets of European Russia necessitated the construction of the Siberian Route from Yekaterinburg across the Ural to Kungur and Yegoshikha (Perm) and further to Moscow, which was completed in 1763 and rendered Babinov's road obsolete. In 1745 gold was discovered in the Ural at Beryozovskoye and later at other deposits. It has been mined since 1747.
The first ample geographic survey of the Ural Mountains was completed in the early 18th century by the Russian historian and geographer Vasily Tatishchev under the orders of Peter I. Earlier, in the 17th century, rich ore deposits were discovered in the mountains and their systematic extraction began in the early 18th century, eventually turning the region into the largest mineral base of Russia.
One of the first scientific descriptions of the mountains was published in 1770–71. Over the next century, the region was studied by scientists from a number of countries, including Russia (geologist Alexander Karpinsky, botanist Porfiry Krylov and zoologist Leonid Sabaneyev), England (geologist Sir Roderick Murchison), France (paleontologist Edouard de Verneuil), and Germany (naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, geologist Alexander Keyserling). In 1845, Murchison, who had according to Encyclopædia Britannica "compiled the first geologic map of the Ural in 1841", published The Geology of Russia in Europe and the Ural Mountains with de Verneuil and Keyserling.
The first railway across the Ural had been built by 1878 and linked Perm to Yekaterinburg via Chusovoy, Kushva and Nizhny Tagil. In 1890 a railway linked Ufa and Chelyabinsk via Zlatoust. In 1896 this section became a part of the Trans-Siberian Railway. In 1909 yet another railway connecting Perm and Yekaterinburg passed through Kungur by the way of the Siberian Route. It has eventually replaced the Ufa – Chelyabinsk section as the main trunk of the Trans-Siberian railway.
The highest peak of the Ural, Mount Narodnaya, (elevation 1,895 m (6,217 ft)) was identified in 1927.
During the Soviet industrialization in the 1930s the city of Magnitogorsk was founded in the South-Eastern Ural as a center of iron smelting and steelmaking. During the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941–1942, the mountains became a key element in Nazi planning for the territories which they expected to conquer in the USSR. Faced with the threat of having a significant part of the Soviet territories occupied by the enemy, the government evacuated many of the industrial enterprises of European Russia and Ukraine to the eastern foothills of the Ural, considered a safe place out of reach of the German bombers and troops. Three giant tank factories were established at the Uralmash in Sverdlovsk (as Yekaterinburg used to be known), Uralvagonzavod in Nizhny Tagil, and Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant in Chelyabinsk. After the war, in 1947–1948, Chum – Labytnangi railway, built with the forced labor of Gulag inmates, crossed the Polar Ural.
Mayak, 150 km southeast of Yekaterinburg, was a center of the Soviet nuclear industry and site of the Kyshtym disaster.
The Ural Mountains extend about 2,500 km (1,600 mi) from the Kara Sea to the Kazakh Steppe along the northern border of Kazakhstan. Vaygach Island and the island of Novaya Zemlya form a further continuation of the chain on the north. Geographically this range marks the northern part of the border between the continents of Europe and Asia. Its highest peak is Mount Narodnaya, approximately 1,895 m (6,217 ft) in elevation.
By topography and other natural features, the Urals are divided, from north to south, into the Polar (or Arctic), Nether-Polar (or Sub-Arctic), Northern, Central and Southern parts. The Polar Urals extend for about 385 kilometers (239 mi) from Mount Konstantinov Kamen in the north to the Khulga River in the south; they have an area of about 25,000 km2 (9,700 sq mi) and a strongly dissected relief. The maximum height is 1,499 m (4,918 ft) at Payer Mountain and the average height is 1,000 to 1,100 m (3,300 to 3,600 ft).
The mountains of the Polar Ural have exposed rock with sharp ridges, though flattened or rounded tops are also found.
The Nether-Polar Ural are higher, and up to 150 km (93 mi) wider than the Polar Urals. They include the highest peaks of the range: Mount Narodnaya (1,895 m (6,217 ft)), Mount Karpinsky (1,878 m (6,161 ft)) and Manaraga (1,662 m (5,453 ft)). They extend for more than 225 km (140 mi) south to the Shchugor River. The many ridges are sawtooth shaped and dissected by river valleys. Both Polar and Nether-Polar Urals are typically Alpine; they bear traces of Pleistocene glaciation, along with permafrost and extensive modern glaciation, including 143 extant glaciers.
The Northern Ural consist of a series of parallel ridges up to 1,000–1,200 m (3,300–3,900 ft) in height and longitudinal hollows. They are elongated from north to south and stretch for about 560 km (350 mi) from the Usa River. Most of the tops are flattened, but those of the highest mountains, such as Telposiz, 1,617 m (5,305 ft) and Konzhakovsky Stone, 1,569 m (5,148 ft) have a dissected topography. Intensive weathering has produced vast areas of eroded stone on the mountain slopes and summits of the northern areas.
The Central Ural are the lowest part of the Ural, with smooth mountain tops, the highest mountain being 994 m (3,261 ft) (Basegi); they extend south from the Ufa River.
The relief of the Southern Ural is more complex, with numerous valleys and parallel ridges directed south-west and meridionally. The range includes the Ilmensky Mountains separated from the main ridges by the Miass River. The maximum height is 1,640 m (5,380 ft) (Mount Yamantau) and the width reaches 250 km (160 mi). Other notable peaks lie along the Iremel mountain ridge (Bolshoy Iremel and Maly Iremel). The Southern Urals extend some 550 km (340 mi) up to the sharp westward bend of the Ural River and terminate in the wide Mughalzhar Hills.
The Urals are among the world's oldest extant mountain ranges. For its age of 250 to 300 million years, the elevation of the mountains is unusually high. They were formed during the Uralian orogeny due to the collision of the eastern edge of the supercontinent Laurussia with the young and rheologically weak continent of Kazakhstania, which now underlies much of Kazakhstan and West Siberia west of the Irtysh, and intervening island arcs. The collision lasted nearly 90 million years in the late Carboniferous – early Triassic. Unlike the other major orogens of the Paleozoic (Appalachians, Caledonides, Variscides), the Urals have not undergone post-orogenic extensional collapse and are unusually well preserved for their age, being underlaid by a pronounced crustal root. East and south of the Urals much of the orogen is buried beneath later Mesozoic and Cenozoic sediments. The adjacent Pay-Khoy to the north is not a part of the Uralian orogen and formed later.
Many deformed and metamorphosed rocks, mostly of Paleozoic age, surface within the Urals. The sedimentary and volcanic layers are folded and faulted. The sediments to the west of the Ural Mountains are formed of limestone, dolomite and sandstone left from ancient shallow seas. The eastern side is dominated by basalts.
The western slope of the Ural Mountains has predominantly karst topography, especially in the Sylva River basin, which is a tributary of the Chusovaya River. It is composed of severely eroded sedimentary rocks (sandstones and limestones) that are about 350 million years old. There are many caves, sinkholes and underground streams. The karst topography is much less developed on the eastern slopes. The eastern slopes are relatively flat, with some hills and rocky outcrops and contain alternating volcanic and sedimentary layers dated to the middle Paleozoic Era. Most high mountains consist of weather-resistant rocks such as quartzite, schist and gabbro that are between 570 and 395 million years old. The river valleys are underlain by limestone.
The Ural Mountains contain about 48 species of economically valuable ores and economically valuable minerals. Eastern regions are rich in chalcopyrite, nickel oxide, gold, platinum, chromite and magnetite ores, as well as in coal (Chelyabinsk Oblast), bauxite, talc, fireclay and abrasives. The Western Urals contain deposits of coal, oil, natural gas (Ishimbay and Krasnokamsk areas) and potassium salts. Both slopes are rich in bituminous coal and lignite, and the largest deposit of bituminous coal is in the north (Pechora field). The specialty of the Urals is precious and semi-precious stones, such as emerald, amethyst, aquamarine, jasper, rhodonite, malachite and diamond. Some of the deposits, such as the magnetite ores at Magnitogorsk, are already nearly depleted.
Many rivers originate in the Ural Mountains. The western slopes south of the border between the Komi Republic and Perm Krai and the eastern slopes south of approximately 54°30'N drain into the Caspian Sea via the Kama and Ural River basins. The tributaries of the Kama include the Vishera, Chusovaya, and Belaya and originate on both the eastern and western slopes. The rest of the Urals drain into the Arctic Ocean, mainly via the Pechora basin in the west, which includes the Ilych, Shchugor, and the Usa, and via the Ob basin in the east, which includes the Tobol, Tavda, Iset, Tura and Severnaya Sosva. The rivers are frozen for more than half the year. Generally, the western rivers have higher flow volume than the eastern ones, especially in the Northern and Nether-Polar regions. Rivers are slower in the Southern Urals. This is because of low precipitation and the relatively warm climate resulting in less snow and more evaporation.
The mountains contain a number of deep lakes. The eastern slopes of the Southern and Central Urals have most of these, among the largest of which are the Uvildy, Itkul, Turgoyak, and Tavatuy lakes. The lakes found on the western slopes are less numerous and also smaller. Lake Bolshoye Shchuchye, the deepest lake in the Polar Urals, is 136 meters (446 ft) deep. Other lakes, too, are found in the glacial valleys of this region. Spas and sanatoriums have been built to take advantage of the medicinal muds found in some of the mountain lakes.
The climate of the Urals is continental. The mountain ridges, elongated from north to south, effectively absorb sunlight thereby increasing the temperature. The areas west of the Ural Mountains are 1–2 °C (1.8–3.6 °F) warmer in winter than the eastern regions because the former are warmed by Atlantic winds whereas the eastern slopes are chilled by Siberian air masses. The average January temperatures increase in the western areas from −20 °C (−4 °F) in the Polar to −15 °C (5 °F) in the Southern Urals and the corresponding temperatures in July are 10 °C (50 °F) and 20 °C (68 °F). The western areas also receive more rainfall than the eastern ones by 150–300 mm (5.9–11.8 in) per year. This is because the mountains trap clouds from the Atlantic Ocean. The highest precipitation, approximately 1,000 mm (39 in), is in the Northern Urals with up to 1,000 cm (390 in) snow. The eastern areas receive from 500–600 mm (20–24 in) in the north to 300–400 mm (12–16 in) in the south. Maximum precipitation occurs in the summer: the winter is dry because of the Siberian High.
The landscapes of the Urals vary with both latitude and longitude and are dominated by forests and steppes. The southern area of the Mughalzhar Hills is a semidesert. Steppes lie mostly in the southern and especially south-eastern Urals. Meadow steppes have developed on the lower parts of mountain slopes and are covered with zigzag and mountain clovers, Serratula gmelinii, dropwort, meadow-grass and Bromus inermis, reaching the height of 60–80 cm. Much of the land is cultivated. To the south, the meadow steppes become more sparse, dry and low. The steep gravelly slopes of the mountains and hills of the eastern slopes of the Southern Urals are mostly covered with rocky steppes. River valleys contain willow, poplar and caragana shrubs.
Forest landscapes of the Urals are diverse, especially in the southern part. The western areas are dominated by dark coniferous taiga forests which change to mixed and deciduous forests in the south. The eastern mountain slopes have light coniferous taiga forests. The Northern Urals are dominated by conifers, namely Siberian fir, Siberian pine, Scots pine, Siberian spruce, Norway spruce and Siberian larch, as well as by silver and downy birches. The forests are much sparser in the Polar Urals. Whereas in other parts of the Ural Mountains they grow up to an altitude of 1000 m, in the Polar Urals the tree line is at 250–400 m. The polar forests are low and are mixed with swamps, lichens, bogs and shrubs. Dwarf birch, mosses and berries (blueberry, cloudberry, black crowberry, etc.) are abundant. The forests of the Southern Urals are the most diverse in composition: here, together with coniferous forests are also abundant broadleaf tree species such as English oak, Norway maple and elm. The Virgin Komi Forests in the northern Urals are recognized as a World Heritage site.
The Ural forests are inhabited by animals typical of Siberia, such as elk, brown bear, fox, wolf, wolverine, lynx, squirrel, and sable (north only). Because of the easy accessibility of the mountains there are no specifically mountainous species. In the Middle Urals, one can see a rare mixture of sable and pine marten named kidus. In the Southern Urals, badger and black polecat are common. Reptiles and amphibians live mostly in the Southern and Central Ural and are represented by the common viper, lizards and grass snakes. Bird species are represented by capercaillie, black grouse, hazel grouse, spotted nutcracker, and cuckoos. In summers, the South and Middle Urals are visited by songbirds, such as nightingale and redstart.
The steppes of the Southern Urals are dominated by hares and rodents such as gophers, susliks, and jerboa. There are many birds of prey such as lesser kestrel and buzzards. The animals of the Polar Urals are few and are characteristic of the tundra; they include Arctic fox, tundra partridge, lemming, and reindeer. The birds of these areas include rough-legged buzzard, snowy owl, and rock ptarmigan.
The continuous and intensive economic development of the last centuries has affected the fauna, and wildlife is much diminished around all industrial centers. During World War II, hundreds of factories were evacuated from Western Russia before the German occupation, flooding the Urals with industry. The conservation measures include establishing national wildlife parks. There are nine strict nature reserves in the Urals: the Ilmen, the oldest one, mineralogical reserve founded in 1920 in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Pechora-Ilych in the Komi Republic, Bashkir and its former branch Shulgan-Tash in Bashkortostan, Visim in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Southern Ural in Bashkortostan, Basegi in Perm Krai, Vishera in Perm Krai and Denezhkin Kamen in Sverdlovsk Oblast.
The area has also been severely damaged by the plutonium-producing facility Mayak opened in Chelyabinsk-40 (later called Chelyabinsk-65, Ozyorsk), in the Southern Ural, after World War II. Its plants went into operation in 1948 and, for the first ten years, dumped unfiltered radioactive waste into the Techa River and Lake Karachay. In 1990, efforts were underway to contain the radiation in one of the lakes, which was estimated at the time to expose visitors to 500 millirem per day. As of 2006, 500 mrem in the natural environment was the upper limit of exposure considered safe for a member of the general public in an entire year (though workplace exposure over a year could exceed that by a factor of 10). Over 23,000 km2 (8,900 sq mi) of land were contaminated in 1957 from a storage tank explosion, only one of several serious accidents that further polluted the region. The 1957 accident expelled 20 million curies of radioactive material, 90% of which settled into the land immediately around the facility. Although some reactors of Mayak were shut down in 1987 and 1990, the facility keeps producing plutonium.
The Urals have been viewed by Russians as a "treasure box" of mineral resources, which were the basis for its extensive industrial development. In addition to iron and copper the Urals were a source of gold, malachite, alexandrite, and other gems such as those used by the court jeweller Fabergé. As Russians in other regions gather mushrooms or berries, Uralians gather mineral specimens and gems. Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak (1852–1912) Pavel Bazhov (1879–1950), as well as Aleksey Ivanov and Olga Slavnikova, post-Soviet writers, have written of the region.
The region served as a military stronghold during Peter the Great's Great Northern War with Sweden, during Stalin's rule when the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex was built and Russian industry relocated to the Urals during the Nazi advance at the beginning of World War II, and as the center of the Soviet nuclear industry during the Cold War. Extreme levels of air, water, and radiological contamination and pollution by industrial wastes resulted. Population exodus resulted, and economic depression at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in post-Soviet times additional mineral exploration, particularly in the northern Urals, has been productive and the region has attracted industrial investment.